How to Practice Zazen

Zazen

Zazen means sitting in silence, a state of being in non-judgmental awareness.

The Japanese word Zazen is not easy to translate. Terms like “concentration” or “meditation” are somehow not suitable, because they imply that the mind centers itself around an object. Even the common term “meditation” originally describes a process of contemplating about an object. But what is Zazen?

One day seeing Yakusan sitting in Zazen, Sekito asked him: “What are you doing?”
Yakusan answered: “I’m not doing anything at all.”
Sekito said: “In that case, you are sitting idly.”
Yakusan replied: “If I were sitting idly, the I would be doing something.”
Sekito asked: “You say you are not doing anything. What is this ‘not doing’?”
Yakusan replied: “Not even the ten thousand sages know.”

Zazen is doing nothing. We are however used to constantly doing something. “To do” something without goal or purpose seems an unnecessary waste of time to us. Activity gives us the feeling of continuity regardless of the actual sense or nonsense of our actions. Therefore we prefer to engage in thousands of other things rather than starting with Zazen. Most of our problems are rooted in the inability to sit silently. Particularly western people are very restless. We waste our live in endless activities. Our mind never quietens. We are carried away in an never ending cycle of events. Unaware of the deeper motives of our actions, we remain involved in an endless chain of cause and reaction.

Zazen is stopping. But usually we are ready to do this only if we find that our motives and actions do not lead to the desired success. We rather tend to project our thoughts and we do things to make impressions on others. We want to be seen in certain ways by others. But in this way we are constantly looking on others, loosing ourselves. As long as one does not know oneself, one wants to become something or is imagining to be something and is disappointed if one is not loved.

Zazen is not goal-oriented, it is without purpose and without supportive devices. Zazen is observation and let go. Zazen is to be here and now. However, we experience the present moment only once our consciousness is free from the processes of thought and identification. It is not the achieving of a goal, but the state of being awake, which then has it’s own meaning.

Zazen is direct seeing into the nature of one’s own being. There is no conception, no object, over which one meditates. Our brain forms and stores emotional, conceptual and graphical samples and interprets them. Zazen is awareness without anticipation. All interpretations are the attempt to derive the future from the past. This way we miss the direct perception of the world. To let go of accumulated knowledge seems dangerous to us, because it means the end of routine and security.

Zazen is silence, stability and openness. The body is like a mountain, the spirit is like the sky. If too many thoughts are clouding the perception, we not only loose contact with ourselves, we also loose compassion and humanity. But even when it is cloudy, the sun is shining behind the clouds. If thoughts and emotions are calming down, we start remembering the nature of ourselves. Like undisturbed water, our consciousness returns to it’s natural state.

Zazen is not an auto-hypnotic technique and has nothing to do with any kind of visualizations. The awareness is wide and open and not focused in any way. It is not pondering and wandering around terms or phantasies. Zazen means to become aware of the film which is playing on the screen of our mind, seeing thoughts come and go without judgment or fixation.

Zazen is not concerned with metaphysical speculation or spectacular experiences; it has nothing to do with mystification, esotericism or new age.

Zazen is not asceticism. Zazen is not a dry and serious affair. Zazen is a play, the highest play you can play, alone or with others.

Zazen is returning to the source, becoming intimate with oneself.

The Practice of Zazen

Zazen can be practiced alone or in a group.

In a calm room, one chooses a place where one feels comfortable and can stay silent throughout the sitting. Zazen is not an escape from the world. One must not create a separation between oneself and the world and it is not necessary to look for a perfect outer situation.

Before one begins to sit, it is good to relax by shaking, stretching or other body exercises. One’s clothes should be loose, in order to breathe freely. As a beginner, one should not struggle to sit for an uncomfortably long time. It is good to start off with half an hour and to gradually extend the time of sitting intuitively.

Usually one sits in the half lotus position on a cushion facing a neutral wall or looking ahead into an open space. A Zafu cushion filled with Kopak or buckwheat has the right hardness, so that one neither sinks nor sits unpleasantly hard. As a substitute, one can also use a folded blanket to sit on. A blanket or a soft carpet on the floor provides added comfort as well as protection against the cold. It is necessary to sit straight up with the knees touching the ground so that the spinal column stands comfortably in a vertical position. One sits on the front section of the cushion and crosses one’s legs.

In the full lotus position the left foot is placed on the right thigh and the right foot on the left thigh. Since however in the west we are not accustomed to sitting like this, the half lotus position is recommended as an easier alternative. This posture requires that only the right foot be placed on the left thigh.

If one sits properly upright, both knees should touch the ground. It is important to realize that it is not necessary to torture oneself in any way! The form just serves to enable one to sit freely. Asceticism or other ideals have nothing to do with Zen. If the half lotus position is impossible, one can cross one’s legs without putting one foot on the high of the other one. If even that is impossible, other alternatives are to sit on a meditation bench or to sit on a cushion in a kneeling position. Those who are unable to sit on the ground can sit in a chair while meditating.

Ultimately the search for the right way to sit should be guided by trusting our own senses. If the body is balanced it carries itself and one is able to sit quietly, and there is no reason to do anything, outwardly or inwardly. It is important not to lean upon anything and to find a relaxed and strain free attitude. The back is held naturally and the shoulders are relaxed. The arms fall easily and freely, a little away from the body. The head is held upright and the chin sits is relaxed and a little back. The hands rest underneath the navel,whereby the left hand rests in the right hand, so that the middle joints of the fingers lie on top of each other. The thumbs touch and the view is soft and directed about a meter before one towards the ground. One’s half-closed eyes do not look at anything in particular, even if one sees everything intuitively! The view goes inward. One’s mouth is closed.

The Breath

While sitting the breath is not manipulated. If one sits correctly, breathing occurs in a natural way by itself. After a short time a natural rhythm arises, the body’s center of gravity is shifted downward and the breath flows gently on it’s own. After exhaling deeply the inhalation follows completely naturally. Zazen means to see the reality of one’s existence,without interpreting it. The observer is not identified with the observed. The perception is direct. The mind is like a mirror. The internal processes are observed without judgment. Thoughts come and go like clouds. Neither does one try to hold thoughts, nor does one suppress them. They are guests, coming and going. Although they are present, one is free of them.

The Spirit

The spirit flows freely without holding on to anything. The journey is completely open. Eased and open one enters with the whole being, without spending energy. Our memory constantly projects new movies onto the internal canvas. If you find yourself lost in thoughts, just let go. As if before a mirror, everything passes by. Here there is no work to do, no right or wrong, no confusion. The awareness is total, without judgment. The heart and the mind are quiet. Without conceptions of space and time one is here now. Simply sitting, and that’s it. One is free and at the same time conditioned by everything.

The first step is to remember one’s own nature and get rooted therein. If one becomes capable of observing thoughts and feelings in one’s everyday life, one becomes independent of the form of sitting. Without hunting for things, one plays an active part in day to day life. Out of the polarity between silence and action contrasts and contradictions appear in a new light. From this arises an insight into the mutual interdependence of all appearances, compassion, an intelligence of the heart, and a great liberty.

Truth is a land without highways and there are no absolute claims. No organization, no believes, no dogmas, no priests, no philosophical knowledge and no psychological techniques can help us to know ourselves and to be ourselves. We have to realize truth through the mirror of our relationships and by watching the content of our mind. The uniqueness of mans life lies not in second hand knowledge which books, traditions or symbols supply, but in the total freedom of all of this.

Source: “Zazen,” from artedojo.com